Did Twitter ruin journalism or simply expose it?

An interesting proposal comes to us from John Ziegler, writing at Mediaite this week. In it, John suggests that the rise of Twitter has led to significant decay in the Fourth Estate, producing a caustic effect on the profession of journalism. While the social media circus surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation and the media’s willingness to wade into the Twitter fray turned ugly, that was only the latest in a long list of examples. Here’s how John sets up his theory.

I have written before about some of the many problems which exist with Twitter, the platform which now, partly because of President Trump’s love of the outlet, dominates our dysfunctional political and journalistic discourse. Specifically, I have argued that Twitter is very liberally biased, but, even worse, absurdly lacking in transparency when it comes to the seemingly arbitrary enforcement of its rather nebulous rules.

However, during the past couple of weeks, as we’ve all endured the national nightmare of the attacks on, and eventual confirmation of, Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, it has become crystal clear that Twitter has far larger issues than even just those. I have now concluded that Twitter has contributed greatly to the deterioration of real journalism, the destruction of our political dialogue, and the diminishing of the daily lives of many people, including myself.

Here is why and how.

Many of John’s complaints will sound familiar to those who hang out in the slums of political social media. Credibility is given to those with the most followers, not the best content. Much of what shows up in popular tweets winds up being wrong, either through a rushed response or deliberate mendacity. Too many people only read the headline in the tweet, not the full underlying article. Virtue signaling, herd mentality, ideological bubbles… John covers all that and more.

Ziegler makes a number of compelling points about how awful Twitter can be. But much like an excessively spicey Mongolian hot pot meal at a restaurant, how much your backside winds up burning the next morning is entirely up to you. You control your experience on Twitter, just the same as you control how many horror movies you watch before you go to bed.

But should journalists be able to blame Twitter for the decay of their craft? The same rules apply. A reporter may be able to dig up some gems from Twitter which they may have missed otherwise. If careful examination and background checking of the latest hot topic shows it to be true, you’ve got yourself a valuable tool. But if you run to press or even retweet something particularly juicy in order to beat your competitors to the punch, don’t blame Twitter if you wound up printing something that came from a satire account.

In the end, the ugly side of Twitter can’t have destroyed or even significantly damaged professional journalism. Every journalist has the option to carefully consider what material they pick up from someone’s timeline, whether or not they use it and what they choose to tweet themselves. Just because the candy in the dish looked particularly enticing, if you wind up weighing 300 pounds and all your teeth are rotting out, you really can’t blame the candy dish.

And as for “our public discourse” (which John also addresses) being ruined by Twitter, the same caveats apply. If you’re running into a lot of people acting like jackwagons on social media, it’s unlikely that Twitter made them that way. Perhaps they were just jackwagons all along, but until social media came along, nobody had the chance to notice.